Recently the press has widely publicized how General Mills is requiring forced arbitrations if there are problems with some of its products or transactions. This development has put a spotlight on a terrible, disturbing and massive trend that is far bigger and wider than GM’s actions. Most consumers do not know that when they buy, rent or enter into a transaction, the contract they sign mandates that they give up their right to a trial by a jury of their peers and instead must have one or three arbitrators make a judgment on their case. In other words, one of our basic constitutional rights is taken from us, often without our knowledge.
How did this happen? Well, whenever we sign a consumer contract such as when we buy a cell phone, a car, or get a credit or debit card, or go into a nursing home – these are just a few of the many examples of our everyday deals-the contract will set forth that if we have a dispute, we CANNOT have a jury trial but instead we must arbitrate the case. Now, very few actually read the long contracts that have super tiny print; and even if we did and tried to change the terms, it is highly unlikely that the company who drafted the contract will allow you to alter it. This is called a “form” or “adhesion” contract. Some years ago many corporations started including the mandatory arbitration terms in the form contracts. And the reason they are getting away with it as most Courts have allowed it by saying that it was an agreed upon term by the parties who signed the contract, that it was a bargained-for condition, and thus the consumer must abide by this and other terms. Of course, the concept that this is a bargained term is a legal myth because in reality the corporation has all the power and did all the contract drafting and the consumer has little to no power to do anything but sign it. Yet, this is the law in most places and thus this trend, including General Mill’s recent actions, is truly commonplace and in my view dangerous.
So, I am happy in some sense that this disclosure and awareness of the truth about General Mills has taken legs. Now perhaps many more people will become aware of what is going on behind the corporate curtains, so to speak.
What can or should be done? First, actually read the contract. If it has a binding arbitration condition, tell the corporation you do not agree to it. Strike it. Second, if they will not agree, take your business elsewhere. Three, make a written record that you do not agree to it. Four, file a complaint with your state’s consumer protection agency or the attorney general’s office. Five, write the corporate officers and complain. Six, spread the word by social media. Seven, write your local paper and put in an op ed piece, so you can educate the public. Eight, talk to a trial lawyer to see what your rights are.
Do not let such an injustice stand. Fight for your rights. In the end, if we do not take action to protect ourselves, we cannot rely on or depend on others to do so for us.